Among the lessons I learned while teaching at Oberlin College was the number of distinguished Black women who were graduates of the school. Several of them I had heard of before my brief tenure, including Anna Julia Cooper and Mary Church Terrell. But it was fascinating to discover some of whom may not have been of national renown but of tremendous importance to a community, such as Dr. Matilda Evans.
Dr. Evans was the first African American woman licensed to practice medicine in South Carolina. Born May 13, 1872 in Aiken, S.C., Matilda was the elder child of Anderson and Harriet Evans. Like many children of her race and in the community she began her early years working in the fields. Her education began at the Schofield Industrial School that was established by Martha Schofield, a Quaker from Philadelphia. Ms. Schofield played a decisive role in Matilda’s educational pursuits and dreams, even helping to raise the funds for her to attend Oberlin College.
In 1891, Matilda graduated and a year later left Oberlin to take a teaching position at Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia. After completing a year of teaching at Haines, two years later she enrolled at the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia, once more ably assisted and mentored by Ms. Schofield. It was Ms. Schofield who convinced a wealthy entrepreneur, Alfred Jones, to finance her medical education.
Matilda received her medical degree in 1897 and set aside her original ambition of becoming a medical missionary in Africa and instead moved to Columbia, S.C. and set up a medical practice, the first Black doctor to do so. This indeed was a rare achievement, particularly for a Black woman, where even the option of studying abroad was a difficult, if not impossible prospect.
Her office was hardly opened when she began receiving a line of patients, Black and white, and the word of reputation spread, thereby increasing her clientele. The quality medical treatment she rendered was especially effective to wealthy white women, and this financial boon made it possible for her to treat a large number of poor Black patients. She was a doctor of meticulous concern for her patients, and this was something that earned her word-of-mouth recommendation, and also allowed her to expand her practice in obstetrics, gynecology, and even surgery. And much of this was done in her home because of the restrictions placed on Black doctors treating Black patients in the city’s hospitals.
One remedy for this Jim Crow condition was her creation of the Taylor Land Hospital and Training School for Nurses in Columbia in 1901. She was so elated by this development that in a letter to Mr. Jones, her benefactor and the bursar at Woman’s Medical College, she wrote: “I have done well, and have a very large practice among all classes of people…I have had unlimited success…Since I have returned to my native state, others have been inspired and have gone to our beloved college to take degrees.” The letter to Mr. Jones was, in fact, a recommendation she was extending to a student seeking to attend the Woman’s Medical College who was in need of financial support.
Dr. Evans’ next important breakthrough was establishing St. Luke’s Hospital and Training School for Nurses, which was under direction until 1918. The facility, located in Columbia, consisted of 14 rooms and 20 beds. Much like Dr. Evans’ reputation, the hospital was widely praised and flourished during the 1920s and ’30s. It was approved during World War II where a Cadet Nurse Corps program was lauded. That school was awarded full accreditation in 1962 from the National League for Nursing. In 1969, college credits were added to the curriculum.
Along with her medical practice and administrative tasks, Dr. Evans was a devoted civil activist, assuring recreational opportunities for children. Under her guidance and vision, a community center with a focus on health and welfare was created as well as an Olympic-sized swimming pool. This facility was later named after her. This outreach and concern for the community extended into her personal life where she adopted seven children and fostered dozens more. A survey she conducted revealed serious health problems for school-age children necessitating a routine of examinations in the schools. To this end, especially for Black children, she advocated for a free vaccine for them. In 1916, she oversaw the creation of the Negro Health Association of South Carolina and two years later she volunteered in the Medical Service Corps of the U.S. Army during World War I. Her success was so notable that she amassed funds to found the Good Health Association of South Carolina after the war, a program with a mission of teaching sound hygiene and sanitary habits to citizens.
In 1922, another laurel was added to her accomplishments when she became the only Black woman in the U.S. to serve as the president of a state medical association and later as president of Carolina’s Palmetto M.A. She was as keen to her health as she was to others; Dr. Evans was an avid swimmer, dancer, knitter, and pianist. Richland Memorial Hospital in Columbia was named in her honor. Away from the office, she ran her own farm and founded a weekly newspaper.
Dr. Evans never married and on Nov. 17, 1935, at the age of 63, she died in Columbia, S.C.